The greatest action-adventure movie of all time is now available on Blu-ray. For now, of course, you can’t just buy Raiders of the Lost Ark; you have to get the 5-disc boxed set “Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures.” It isn’t really “complete,” if you count Indy’s small-screen adventures, but does include all four feature films, painstakingly restored for hi-def, from the untouchable classic Raiders to the disposable latter-day fourquel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with the fifth disc entirely devoted to bonus features.
Still the classic standard by which action-adventure movies are measured, Raiders of the Lost Ark is Lucas’ and Spielberg’s hugely entertaining throwback to old matinee serial cliffhangers. Brilliant action set pieces, Harrison Ford at his swashbuckling best, Old Testament spirituality, satiric jabs at Nazi anti-Semitism — it’s all here.
Roger Ebert says Raiders “plays like an anthology of the best parts of all the Saturday matinee serials ever made” — and does it ever — but it does much more than that. Although Jones evokes Alan Quatermain of King Solomon’s Mines, neither author H. Rider Haggard nor his various adapters ever figured out how to make King Solomon’s mines more than a MacGuffin. What elevates Raiders from great entertainment to transcendently great entertainment is that the filmmakers know exactly what to do with the Ark of the Covenant.
Lightning never struck twice. None of the sequels recaptured the numinous awe of the Ark — and both 80’s-era sequels added overt sensuality absent in Raiders, which is discreet enough in that respect to watch with children (assuming they can handle the melting heads and all).
The weakest link in the series is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a downright oppressive prequel that fails as entertainment by miscalculating the ratio of unpleasantness the audience will endure in relation to entertainment value we get out of it.
Although everyone remembers the infamous heart-ripping scene, that’s not the worst of it — nor are the bugs and the monkey brains, or Kate Capshaw’s grating performance as Willie Scott (yes, she’s supposed to be annoying, but that doesn’t make her any more bearable).
Where I stop having fun is when it comes to Indian children kidnapped into slavery, the drugged Indy brutally smacking Short Round to the ground and lowering Willie into the lava, and the oppressive darkness of the Thuggee cult, all in the absence of any countervailing element of light or hope such as the Ark or even the Grail.
There are compensating pleasures. The delirious first-act climactic stunt, in which the heroes leap from a crashing plane with an inflatable life raft, toboggan down a snowcapped mountain peak, skid off a cliff and fall 300 feet into a river is one of the wildest conceits of the series, even if it tips into a kind of self-parody that Raiders avoided. Indy finally has that whip-versus-sword battle deferred from the original (with two-to-one odds to boot). And the insect creepy-crawlies are more effective than any of the later equivalents (though not the snakes of the original).
Still, in practically every other respect Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is significant improvement on its immediate predecessor, though still no rival for the original. Sean Connery is an inspired choice as the senior Jones, and the lighthearted tone is closer to Raiders, but while the quest for the Holy Grail holds out hope for transcendence, in the end the Grail is ultimately something of a disappointment.
Partly this is because the Grail of Christian legend is a hazier property than the Ark of the Old Testament — and also a more spiritual one. The film reaches for “enlightenment,” but that’s harder to pull off than melting Nazi heads.
As pure romp, though, Last Crusade is way more fun than anything else after Raiders. The sparkling prologue offers a taste of “Young Indiana Jones” action while providing the background for Indy’s fear of snakes as well as his whip and fedora — not to mention Harrison Ford’s chin scar! The tank battle sequence has more verve than practically any action sequence from the other two sequels, and the zeppelin sequence has the funniest post-Raiders punchline (“No ticket”).
Despite its unevenness, the trilogy, released over an eight-year span, had a certain completeness to it. Coming nineteen years later, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a patently superfluous postscript to the series, a nostalgic ode to nostalgia that doesn’t so much continue the adventure (that ship has sailed) as offer an opportunity to catch up with old friends — above all Indy’s one true love, Marion Ravenood (Karen Allen), whose mere presence makes the film worth catching.
The film opens with a bang — with a nuclear blast, actually — capping a first act that’s the strongest part of the film. This sequence ends with an infamously silly stunt (even more over-the-top than Temple of Doom’s life-raft sequence!) that has subsequently entered Internet parlance (“nuking the fridge”), but which for my money is the creative highlight of the film.
Shia LaBeouf is somewhat miscast, and the completely unconvincing Marlon Brando stylings don’t help, but while he’s no successor to Ford or his iconic hero (as the denouement more or less explicitly acknowledges), the two of them do have some nice moments together.
“Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures” includes seven hours of bonus features, much previously available in earlier editions, but well worth having if you didn’t already have the previous releases.
The one notable new feature is “On the Set,” an hour-long collection of outtakes, deleted scenes, production discussion and the like from the filming of Raiders, arranged in narrative order so you can almost watch the movie being made. The highlight here is footage of fight-scene choreography for the abandoned marketplace swordfight. Thrown in at at end are some outtakes, deleted scenes and such from the other three films.
Recycled bonus features include making-of documentaries for all four films, including a 1981 doc on Raiders not previously released on DVD. There are also plenty of making-of featurettes focusing in turn on stunts and special effects (including an entire extra devoted to the melting head shot!), sound and music (John Williams is the man!), the series’ women and creepy crawlies, props and locations (revelation: the valley where Indy threatens to blow up the ark is the same valley where the jawas captured Artoo-Detoo!). Lots of good stuff.
Like the Paramount logo mountain peak in the now-famous opening dissolve that started it all nearly three decades ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark towers over the surrounding landscape. It is the apotheosis of its genre, the Citizen Kane of pulp action–adventure, definitively summing up all that came before and setting the indelible standard for all that comes after.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.